Inside Views: J L Cooper
Another in our series that looks at hi-tech companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology. This month Paul Gilby talks to Jim Cooper, President of J.L Cooper Electronics and the MIDI Manufacturers Association.
Continuing our series that looks at hi-tech companies and design personnel working in the field of music and recording technology.
JIM COOPER President of J.L. Cooper Electronics and the MIDI Manufacturers Association
The name 'J.L. Cooper' is little known in the UK, except perhaps to those who read his monthly MIDI column in the American 'Keyboard' magazine. So who is he and what does the J.L. Cooper Electronics company actually produce? Paul Gilby spoke to him about his background as a consultant to E-mu Systems and Oberheim, his own company's activities and his position as President of the world MIDI Manufacturers Association.
Jim Cooper is a designer who has contributed significantly to the development of today's electronic musical instruments. His involvement in those early pioneering polyphonic synthesizers - the Oberheim modular range - was an important step for both him and the industry. That was back in the '70s. Today, Jim Cooper is still as enthusiastic as ever when it comes to developing products that "solve people's problems". He also devotes a lot of his time to the unpaid post of President of the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). Jim takes up the story...
"I became interested in electronic music when I first heard the Walter Carlos Switched On Bach album in the very early Seventies. I had just got out of the Army and returned to college to finish off my Bachelor of Physics degree. The only thing I was sure of at that time was that I didn't want to be a physicist! I finished the degree in 1971 and tried to get a job in electrical engineering. However, at that time there was a terrible slump in the market - everybody was firing and nobody was hiring!
I was applying for lots of jobs and basically got nowhere. Totally frustrated with this situation, I decided to look away from mainstream electronics and, being interested in electronic music, I wrote to a few companies in that field. Surprisingly, I got a couple of positive replies. One of them was from UCLA (University of Los Angeles) and I got a job working in their electronic music studio maintaining their equipment and doing a little teaching. That lasted for five years."
What kind of equipment did the studio have at that time?
"Well, it was quite primitive back in 1971. They had some of the early series Moog modular systems and an early Buchla synthesizer, plus a 4-track tape machine. During the time I was there they eventually upgraded to 16-track but the studio was always under-budgeted and under-appreciated, especially by the rest of the music department.
During the last three years in that job, I somehow got to know Tom Oberheim, at a time when I was fooling around a lot with oscillator designs. Tom had just designed a device called the Maestro Phase Shifter and was just getting into the field of electronic music. He didn't really know a lot about the design of oscillators and filters, so he asked me to do some consulting work for him and that lasted some two and a half years.
During that time we designed a synthesizer expander module - the old, white fascia Oberheim models. Subsequently, we went on to design the two and then four-voice polyphonic synthesizers. People like Joe Zawinul of Weather Report used them. Finally, Oberheim grew to a size where I could quit my job at UCLA and go full-time with them.
I stayed at Oberheim for five years as Chief Engineer. During that time we produced the OBX and the OBXa polysynths and we had just started working on the design of the DSX and the DMX drum machine when Tom and I had a parting of ways. At the time, I was doing customising work on the side, strictly on Oberheim equipment (one of the big things I was adding were four-pole filters to OBX synths). Tom basically didn't think that I should have been doing that, so I left in 1981. For the next two years I worked out of my garage doing consulting work and scraping by.
After a while the business started to grow. People would call me up and get me to customise their synths. They also used to say: 'As you're already working on the machine, can you repair oscillator three?', or something like that. The problem was that I didn't really want to repair gear - I wanted to customise it!
So, I opened up a small workshop and hired a guy to work as the repair man. It was around this time that I made the connection with E-mu Systems. (I had known many of the guys there from my Oberheim days, when they too did consultancy work for Tom.) They had just released the Emulator I sampler and I got a call from E-mu saying that they had a couple of owners who were asking if they could put envelope generators on their E-I. They asked me if I could come up with a retro-fit and I did.
That started a long relationship with E-mu because they saw that I could do the job properly. After that we came up with a couple of mods for their Drumulator and by this time we had established warranty repair centre status with almost all of the major instrument manufacturers. That repair business continues today and is called Hi-Tech Musical Services. It's based in our old building, which they took over completely when we grew too big and had to move out. I still own that company.
The next thing that happened in my life was MIDI!"
What effect did MIDI have on you?
"Well, about three years ago MIDI was starting to appear and at that time I was producing some custom gear, designing my own printed circuit boards and painting the rack boxes - really doing a professional job that solved interface problems. People were forever trying to link a Roland to a Korg or an ARP and running into big problems."
"When MIDI came along, I really thought I was out of business! It looked like people wouldn't need custom solutions to their problems anymore. When the MIDI standard was finally published and equipment started to appear with the new interface on it, I suddenly realised that I wasn't out of business. In fact, I was most definitely in business. People needed to interface the old-style gear, with its CV and Gate technology, with the new MIDI gear. In some ways, this was an important step for me."
What sort of interface devices were you designing at this time?
"My first product was a box that turned MIDI into a set of eight CV and Gate outputs and there was another unit which performed the reverse function. I started to produce these for individual customers, even though they looked like quality finished, mass-produced units. However, the product that finally triggered off the real commercial side of my business was the Roland MSQ700 sequencer. The week that came out, I got three phone calls from people who said that they had just bought an MSQ700 but, because their DX7 only transmitted on MIDI Channel 1 and the MSQ couldn't do a translation of channel numbers, they were stuck. I went away and came up with a product which we called the 'Channelizer'. And then I also came up with the reverse product that only allowed one MIDI channel to pass through - a sort of MIDI filter.
We showed these products at the next NAMM show and that's where it all took off from. We kind of look at these products as 'band aids' - they all fix a flaw in some manufacturer's equipment - patching them up and getting them to do what musicians really want. We produced all sorts of products like clock convertors that changed 24, 48, and 96 pulse clocks into one another.
What was important in those days was the free publicity the big guys like Roland and Yamaha gave us. Many times when people would ring them up complaining of something not working right, they would say, 'Well, we hear that there's a little box made by J.L. Cooper that'll fix it for you.' That kind of endorsement was really good for us."
At the last American AES show you launched a series of mixer automation products. What's happening in that field for you?
"The automation products demonstrate an interesting application of MIDI. We have a MIDI Mute system which plugs into any mixer's insert points and allows you to control the muting of channels via MIDI. However, that product presumes that you have a MIDI sequencer and that it is somehow synchronised to tape. When we launched it we got a good reaction and within a few weeks of delivering the first of those packages we had phone calls from Soundcraft, Neotek and Amek, all saying, 'We hear that you have desk automation.' We told them what it was and how it worked and they got very excited. However, when they understood that you had to use it with a MIDI sequencer they cooled off a little. Their type of clients just weren't used to using MIDI sequencers. They asked if there was some way of losing the need for a MIDI sequencer and how could we make it work with SMPTE timecode.
Because of that feedback, we made a positive decision to move into the area of mixer automation rather than just producing the one product. SAM, which is our SMPTE Automation Manager, is the direct result of that feedback. It's just been launched and it will incorporate the new MIDI timecode (MTC) facility.
What's important about SAM is that it is a product which confronts the basic flaw evident in all of today's MIDI sequencers. You see, one of the problems of using existing MIDI sequencers is that, first of all, there is no sequencer on the market which will directly read SMPTE timecode. You have to use a convertor box such as a Roland SBX80 SMPTE-to-MIDI unit. The other issue is that if you ask any MIDI sequencer to start in the middle of a song, it will ignore the musical note status from that particular start point.
For example, if you wind a tape back and drop in part way through a 24-bar sustained bass note, the MIDI sequencer wouldn't know which note it was supposed to be playing until it saw the next MIDI note-on command - and that could be some time to come. That fundamental aspect of MIDI-controlled mixing automation has to be solved if any piece of gear is going to be usable in a way that allows you to repeat mixes.
Consequently, if you are trying to use MIDI note-on/note-off commands to represent channel mutes, you need to know what the status of those mixer channels are at all times - it's no good winding back the tape and dropping in only to find all sorts of different channels switched on or off when they are not supposed to be. The problem is one of time resolution. Unless the sequencer software can make you aware of these situations, it's not going to be a very accurate system.
What I have done on my MIDI Mute system is to have it send out a full set of updated position information, every three seconds. This means that you are never more than three seconds away from knowing what the real status of a mix should be.
It was this problem which lead me to develop the SAM system. Here, the unit keeps a table of the status of all the mixer channels in its own memory. So, you can chase up and down a tape and SAM looks at each command as it goes by and constantly updates its position ready to drop back into the play mode with the correct mix status for that position on tape.
We are now looking ahead of SAM towards producing a system which not only gives you automated muting of channels in relation to timecode, but also gives VCA control of channel fader levels."
One questionable aspect of MIDI when related to audio fader movement has been the resolution.
The MIDI Spec only offers 128 discrete steps whereas a traditional mixer fader has infinite resolution. What thoughts do you have about that?
"Sure, it is limited in resolution, but our product is in no way meant to threaten the big boys with their super-expensive VCA controlled mixing systems. Ours is aimed at the guy with an 8 or 16-track set-up who wants more creative control of his music. I think that if you use the 128 steps in the right way, I'm convinced it will be fine. For example, if you have ½dB steps across the first 50dB range and then increase the coarseness of the steps, you shouldn't run into any real problems - it needs a logarithmic approach."
Are most of the older products that you have mentioned still in production?
"To date, we have probably produced about 35 or so different models of which around 25 are still in production.
We had some interesting bits of gear. For example, we did a retro-fit for the E-mu Drumulator which allowed you to select one of three sets of sound chips. But when the Drumulator stopped, so did the requests for the mod. Typically, some products that we made had a parallel product life with the unit they were designed to operate with. A few times we have been talked out of discontinuing a product. For example, we made a thing called the MIDI Wind Driver. This was originally designed for use with the Lyricon wind synthesizer [See last month's 'A History Of Wind Synthesizers' feature for more details - Ed] and for a period of time we were maybe selling only one a month. Then just when we were down to our last 15 units, an article appeared in a magazine talking about the Lyricon and it mentioned our product. Things went crazy, and we ended up making another hundred units to supply the demand."
It seems that MIDI has had a profound effect on your life. So much so, in fact, that you have become deeply involved with the MIDI Manufacturers Association. What does this body do?
"I am actually the President of the MMA, which is a body of equipment manufacturers from all around the world - except Japan. There are around 50 manufacturers in all and they have access to the technical sessions held each year at the NAMM shows. We also have a technical standards bulletin three or four times a year and run a very active section on the PAN network in the States. That's a product developer's area which is closed to ordinary PAN members.
In recent times we have established a standard for transmitting and receiving sample data dumps over MIDI and also the standard for the registered and non-registered controller ID areas. We have just finished a document that is an extension of the MIDI Spec 1.0 and this spells out how these issues are handled. These two MIDI controller areas each represent some 16,000 controller IDs. The registered section means that there has to be a consensus of opinion before a controller number can be used for a given application, and the unregistered section basically offers a free-for-all. I'm using that area myself for the mixer automation units we are designing. The only official registered controller so far, is for a function called a 'pitch-bend sensitivity control'. This is a way for a slave synth to be told how far to pitch-bend at full scale.
Recent proposals have been the new MIDI Timecode and a standard file format dump for sequencer data."
What connection is there between the MMA and the IMA (International MIDI Association)?
"Well, first of all, there is no real official connection between the two parties. The MMA employs the IMA to act as publishers on its behalf for the MIDI Spec, related papers, and the technical bulletins. It's a nice arrangement which works well. The people at the IMA are very enthusiastic and that shows because they have several thousand members and they really do care. What's more, it's a nonprofit making organisation which really does serve the needs of those interested in all aspects of MIDI."
Could you give us some details about this new format?
"It is not a format to replace MIDI, as we know it now. Basically, there are two main aspects of MTC, as it is sometimes known. The main idea is to utilise the SMPTE timecode which already exists in studios. To date, the general approach has been to use devices which convert timecode into a tempo 'map', which is related to MIDI song position pointers. Now that's fine for music, but not so good for video work where you are locked to tape.
So, there are two main areas which the new MTC tackles. One has to do with the real-time aspect of it: here a two-byte MIDI message is integrated into the SMPTE timecode and sent four times per frame. This indicates the exact current frame number. The second aspect of MTC is a non-real-time dump format, which basically specifies a way in which information can be passed from one piece of equipment to another. This data is indicated in a SMPTE-related way, for example, as a 'cue list'."
Finally, to return to your own company's activities, what is happening in the future for J.L. Cooper Electronics?
"Well, we are looking at expanding our worldwide distribution. We exhibited at the AES and NAMM shows this year and next year we'll probably go to Frankfurt to help the international push. Aside from that, I don't wish to talk about our product ideas."
J.L. Cooper products have been available in the UK from a number of music shops which have directly imported the equipment in the past. Although the product range is not widely known, it includes some very handy units which, in the words of Jim Cooper himself, "fix the problems the big manufacturers never get around to solving".
The current range of products included in the MIDI Mation series are the SMPTE Automation Manager (SAM) and MIDI Mute. Further products include the MIDI Link, MIDI Blender, MIDI Disk, MIDI Switcher, MIDI Lighting Controller and MIDI Sync Unit. Many of these products are now available through a new British company, Evenload Soundworks, who have been appointed as the official UK distributors of J.L. Cooper products.
If you wish to know more about the technical aspects of MIDI and obtain an official copy of the MIDI Specification, write to the IMA for details.
International MIDI Association, (Contact Details).
J.L. Cooper Electronics, (Contact Details).
Evenload Soundworks, (Contact Details).
Feature by Paul Gilby